#BlackWednesday: Guatemala Takes Another Step to Institutionalize Corruption

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Guatemala’s congress took another bold step towards institutionalizing corruption on September 13, by reforming a law to protect politicians and their party functionaries from prosecution and penalties in cases of illicit financing of political campaigns.

The extraordinary measure took some congressional representatives by surprise, according to Prensa Libre. Many of these representatives had not seen the proposal until it hit the congressional floor for what was, according to the media account, a short debate before an even quicker vote.

The result — after a vote overwhelmingly in favor of the proposal — was a reform of the penal code that shifts responsibility in cases of illicit campaign financing from the party secretaries to the party accountants. It also states that only contributions that were not declared to the election monitoring regulatory agency can be subject to investigation, according to Prensa Libre’s interpretation of the law.

What’s more, some have interpreted the new law as allowing anyone convicted of any criminal offense and sentenced to less than 10 years in prison to pay for their crimes with money instead of time — reportedly between 5 and 100 quetzales (between $0.70 and $13.70) for each day they would have been incarcerated.

The reaction in Guatemala’s press and on social media was nearly uniform disgust. La Hora called it a “Day of Infamy.” The independent media outlet Nómada titled their article, “The Giant Son-of-a-Bitch in Congress,” referring to the intellectual author of the bill. On its Facebook page, Canal Antigua, the country’s most important television station, declared: “Congress reaches agreement and guarantees impunity for illicit campaign contributions.” 

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On Twitter, some dubbed the day #BlackWednesday (#MiercolesNegro), a play on what was once a hopeful #CICIGThursday (#JuevesDeCICIG).

CICIG is, of course, a reference to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisón Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala), the United Nations-backed judicial appendage that has led the fight against corruption and organized crime in the country since 2007. #CICIGThursdays were once days on which the anti-graft body and the Attorney General’s Office would announce their latest, very often powerful indictments against top politicians, businessmen and organized crime figures. In the last two years, their targets have included two of the country’s sitting presidents, a vice president and a former interior minister, to name just a few.

Most recently, the CICIG worked with the country’s Attorney General’s Office to develop a case against President Jimmy Morales and his party, the National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional – FCN), for illicit financing in Morales’ 2015 presidential campaign. Morales responded by declaring CICIG Commissioner (and Colombian judge) Iván Velásquez a persona non grata, but his efforts to expel Velásquez were blocked by the Constitutional Court. That is when the ball was passed back to congress, which first decided to maintain Morales’ status of immunity against prosecution — effectively stalling the investigation into his campaign — and has now passed this abominable legal reform. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The irony of this story is that the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office, in an effort to show that they were not playing favorites in their efforts to fight corruption and criminality, had declared they were investigating leaders of not just Morales’ FCN party but also two other leading parties, the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de Esperanza – UNE) and Líder. 

But instead of proving their unbiased approach, the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office effectively cemented a political alliance among these former foes, incentivizing them to create blanket protections for the rest of the parties and their corrupt operatives and leaders. In effect, congress and the president have institutionalized corruption in the political process. The CICIG had declared this type of systematized graft as its top target, but it is now virtually helpless to stop it. 

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

The next steps in this process may be scarier than the last. Members of congress will almost certainly solidify their efforts to rid themselves of, or isolate, their enemies, who they have cast as foreign meddlers (even “Chinese Communist” infiltrators by one of the founders of Morales’ FCN). 

As InSight Crime pointed out, their next target is most likely Interior Minister Francisco Rivas — a former prosecutor who is leading a reform of the police and the prison system, and is one of the CICIG and the Attorney General Office’s prime allies. He can be removed with a simple “no confidence” vote in congress, followed by a thumbs down from President Morales. 

But others may soon follow, including the chief of police and the head of tax system, who are also both Rivas’ allies and friends of the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office.

Prominent citizen activists in Guatemala are already challenging the new law in court. And the US congress and the rest of the international community have voiced their concern. But Morales and his cronies are not listening, perhaps in part because they can see through the Trump administration’s hypocrisy

In essence, this is the beginning of the purge, not the end of it. And in effect, it will neuter the efforts of the CICIG, the Attorney General’s Office, and the international community to upend the perennially corrupt and very often criminal Guatemalan political system

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